Escape to Colorado’s Royal Gorge country for summer action in the mountains and on the river

Larry Borowsky

More of the 3-day trip:

Saturday

Sunday

 

“Don’t you dare pick up a hitchhiker,” my passenger implored as we crested the final rise above the Arkansas River Valley. A reasonable request: We were, after all, entering an area that proudly calls itself the “Corrections Capital of the World.” Cañon City, which flanks the Arkansas at the mouth of the famous Royal Gorge, has been warehousing felons since 1871, when the Colorado Territorial Prison was built here. Its downstream neighbor, Florence, has a dozen or so county, state, and federal penal facilities, housing nearly 10,000 cell dwellers.

Hollywood immortalized the local industry in the 1948 jailbreak flick Cañon City, with real-life warden Roy Best cast as himself. That hardscrabble character personified the region for many years afterward―a perfect match for the surrounding scrub-sage gulches and stern purple peaks.

But these two riverside towns have begun staging a breakout of their own in recent years. Razor wire and gray walls no longer set the tone here, as they did in the past. The last few years have brought a new sense of hospitality and a greater emphasis on recreation and tourism. Cañon City and Florence are coming to symbolize freedom rather than confinement, serving as gateways to a ruggedly beautiful playground.

This land of red rocks and gray summits is tied together by a ribbon of cascading water: the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River, better known as the Royal Gorge. Once considered impassable and later coveted by railroad builders as the portal to the Rocky Mountains, the gorge is now a recreational industry unto itself. The majestic Royal Gorge Bridge flies from rim to rim, suspended more than 1,000 feet above the chasm floor; down below, the diesel trains of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad carry passengers upstream on the old railroad tracks. And in summer, thousands of rafters and kayakers shoot the gorge's class IV rapids.

Florence and Cañon City both boast well-preserved redbrick downtowns, and restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, art galleries, and boutiques are beginning to move in. Old warden Best might not approve, but these gateways to rafting, hiking, and mountain biking are good bases for exploring the Arkansas River country.

Unless you hitchhike.

 

FRIDAY

Map it out. Stop by the Cañon City Chamber of Commerce (403 Royal Gorge Blvd.; 800/876-7922), housed in the elegant abode of long-ago Colorado governor James H. Peabody, for a quick orientation and a walking-tour map of the historic downtown district.

 

Art vieux, art nouveau. Housed in the classic 1932 post office building (on the National Register of Historic Places), the Fremont Center for the Arts (closed Sun–Mon; $1; 505 Macon Ave.; 719/275-2790) is the nation’s oldest continually operating community arts facility—and an excellent place to view work by Colorado artists. The newest venue in town, Bluäche Gallery (closed Mon; 301 Main St.; 719/429-3772), opened this May and features the sculptures of proprietor Mikel Williams and other local artists.

 

Flavor of the monks. The first crop of Rieslings is still on the vine at the brand-new Winery at the Holy Cross Abbey (2951 E. U.S. 50; 719/ 275-8631), but the tasting room is open, featuring a selection of Colorado wines. Enjoy a few sips, then tour the grounds of the monastery, home to Benedictine monks since 1924.

 

Take a dive. Celebrating its 100th anniversary, the Owl Cigar Store (closed Sun; 626 Main; 719/275-9946) grills up the best $1.80 double cheeseburgers in the West. Wash ’em down with a cold beer, then play a game of pool.

 

Cliffhanger I. Gaze into the abyss from the middle of the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park ($17; 8 miles west and 4 miles south of Cañon City off U.S. 50; 719/275-7507). Opened in 1929, the attraction carries a whiff of tourist-trap cheese; avoid the shops and snack bars and concentrate on the views, which will stun you.

 

Cliffhanger II. Keep both hands on the wheel on Skyline Drive (turn off U.S. 50 about 3 miles west of Cañon City), a knifeedge road built by chain-gang laborers in the early 20th century. Pull off at the first turnout to see 100 million–year–old dinosaur tracks.

 

Sign language. The billboards for Merlinos’ Belvedere Restaurant (1330 Elm Ave.; 719/275-5558) line the road for 20 miles before you get to Cañon City. Follow them. This family-owned emporium of homemade pastas and aged, handcut steaks more than lives up to its billing.

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